SAO PAULO — The top players are here (mostly), the stadiums are ready (sort of) and preparation time is up: The 2014 World Cup begins Thursday.
After Brazil takes center stage in Sao Paulo (yes, Croatia will be there, too, but all eyes will be on the host), the two biggest heavyweight fights of the first round arrive in short order: Spain against the Netherlands on Friday and England against Italy on Saturday.
On Monday, the United States plays its first match, against Ghana, in the northeastern beachfront city of Natal.
The Brazil-Croatia match will be the unfinished Itaquerao stadium’s first encounter with a full-capacity crowd.
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Will everything work? More importantly, will the 61,600 spectators be safe? Not even World Cup organizers can be totally sure. Because of chronic delays, worker deaths and other problems during its construction, the new arena has never been match-tested at close to full capacity.
Meanwhile, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann downplayed the demands on his team.
“For us now, talking about winning a World Cup, it’s just not realistic,” Klinsmann said. “I think we are getting, every year, another step forward. We are getting stronger. … (But) today, even before the World Cup starts, to say we should win? It’s just not realistic.”
The U.S. is one of just seven countries that have qualified for each of the past seven World Cups. Yet it has advanced beyond the second round just once and won only four games in 24 years.
Landon Donovan, the star forward cut by Klinsmann last month, has been hired as an ESPN analyst and said: “This will come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t agree with Jurgen.”
He said former American defender Alexi Lalas, another ESPN broadcaster, felt the same way, as did the team’s primary fan group.
“As someone who has been in that locker room and has sat next to the players … we agree with the American Outlaws: We believe that we will win,” Donovan said. “And I think that’s the way Americans think. I think that’s the sentiment.”
Oddsmakers peg the U.S. chances of winning the title at 250-1.
Klinsmann had scheduled a scrimmage with Belgium for Thursday. But the Belgians, concerned about the endless traffic that has snarled Sao Paulo, canceled the game.